When Babushka heard a knock at the door, she stopped – one hand still clenching a damp grey duster – and listened. Her pounding heart seemed to be the loudest noise in her tiny house. She wasn’t expecting anyone. It was early. The midwinter sun had not yet risen. If she hadn’t had to get on with the cleaning she’d have been keeping herself warm in bed.
‘If she hadn’t been cleaning’ – what a ridiculous thing to say. Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning...for the last forty years. She could hardly remember a time when her hands hadn’t been raw from the soap and scrubbing. ‘If only’......When she stopped even for a moment the thought would come back into her head – ‘If only I had been a better mother. If only I had kept my house clean, perhaps....’ and there she would stop the thought. But the hard face of the nurse as she handed over the body of her lifeless child still haunted her.
She had not given birth again. How she had longed for another babe to hold in her arms. The cleaning, cleaning, cleaning had got in the way of her husband’s love. He had retreated, first into his workshop, then to the village inn, finally who knows where.
It was a long time since a man had crossed her threshold. The knock at the door, sounded heavy and hard. A man’s hand, knocking. Men’s voices. The rattle of a horse’s bridle, a neigh, and a strange yawning sound that she was sure she had never heard before.
Babushka opened the door a crack and peered out into the snowy darkness. Three strangers stood at her door, one holding the reins of two horses and one those of an animal that looked...well...a bit like a horse might look if a child had knitted it, mistaken the pattern and stuffed it with rolled up socks. The first man’s bulky body took up her whole doorway. Blonde and muscular, he looked like a king. He waved to his companions, smiled and asked ‘Good Woman, we are strangers in this land. We are following a star in the East. We are tired and ask only for a few hours rest before we set out again at dusk. We can pay you well.’
Babushka looked at his companions and did not doubt they had money. The man leading the horses, looked like a priest. His brown hair cut short, his blue eyes piercing but kind, he was warmly dressed with a girdle of golden silk. The third stranger was seeing to the peculiar beast, but when he turned she could see his skin was black as charcoal from the hearth. The warmth in his white toothed smile melted her resistance. Babushka pulled the door wide enough to let them in.
For all their riches, they were polite as guests. She had little to offer by way of food, but they complimented the watery porridge she made for them and made no fuss that there was only one small bed. The priest and the dark skinned one laid themselves neatly end to end, while the kingly one took up the rest of the bedroom floor where he snored rhythmically, the rafters resonating to the sound.
Babushka closed the bedroom door and got on with her daily round of duty. She made a pottage of beans and turnips. Her guests were awake as the sun began to set and ate the hot stew before preparing their beasts for the onward journey. As the coins jingled in her pocket, Babushka asked the dark-skinned one ‘Where are you going? And why do you travel by night? Surely it isn’t safe?’
‘We are following a star that appeared in the East. It leads to the One, the Promised Saviour, the Messiah’.
What do you mean ‘The One’? she asked. There was a light in his eyes as he spoke. ‘We are seeking a newborn child, the Son of God. That star’, he said, pointing ‘will lead us to him’.
The strangers were soon mounted and ready to go. The kingly one looked down at Babushka, small and shrivelled by her years of sorrow. ‘Come with us,’ he said, ‘come and seek the child that is born for the salvation of all’.
Babushka shook her head. She couldn’t possibly. The house was such a mess. She needed to scrub the pots and wash the floor. It would be late before she slept tonight with so much to do.
The next day, Babushka rose wearily. It had snowed again in the night. The tracks of the strangers were faint now. Only the gold coins reminded her they were not a dream. She spent the day keeping herself busy. But all she could see was the light in the three strangers’ eyes as they spoke of this Child.
At sunset, Babushka looked out at the dark snow and up into the sky where the star still hung. She looked back into her tiny house. Neat and tidy, it seemed as good a time as any to leave it. She pulled on her best walking boots and her warmest coat. She went to a small cupboard. One she rarely opened now. Taking a sack, she put into it all the toys, her own child’s toys. ‘I will take them, and when I find the One who is come for all, I will give him these toys. They are no good to me now’.
With those words, Babushka set off into the night. But she is no astronomer, skilled at stargazing. With the tracks of the strangers lost in the snow, each time she comes to a house, she must peer in through the window. If she sees a child sleeping, she must ask, in a whisper ‘Are you the One’ and leave a toy on its bed for the morning.
And on Christmas morning, two thousand years later, children in Eastern Europe, still wake with excitement to find the gifts that Babushka has left.
With joy in her heart, and a light in her eyes, Babushka is still walking the winter nights and asking ‘Are you the One?’ ‘Are you the One?’